Talking With Faculty on Distinctive Wes Education

For the last several years the Provost and I have periodically hosted luncheons at which a professor gives a short talk about his or her research to dozens of colleagues.  I look forward to these events because I have the opportunity to break bread with faculty I may not often see and because the talks are always stimulating.  The faculty who attend do so, I think, for the same reasons.

Each year at one (or two) of these luncheons I share some of my thoughts on Wesleyan’s future, particularly with respect to the academic program and faculty mentorship of students. My goal is to solicit input on what we can do together to improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students. At our most recent gathering, I spoke in general terms about the importance of having enough faculty so that students can have a mentored research experience. David Westmoreland (Chemistry) pointed out that we already have effective programs that allow students to do summer research with faculty, but we don’t have the funds to support all the qualified students who want to do this. Finding more funds for these programs would be a quick, concrete and powerful way to enrich teaching and mentorship. I’m on it. We should be able to raise additional funds quickly for this purpose. Another, somewhat broader idea, was shared by Stephanie Weiner (English). She thought Wesleyan, already renowned for its creative writing, could be better known for writing in general.  Clarity of expression is so crucial to clarity of thought.  Writing could be emphasized more across the curriculum and become part of our identity in the academic marketplace. Stephen Angle (Philosophy) expressed interest in how the Center for Pedagogical Innovation might bring research on best teaching practices into productive conversations among faculty. Even professors who have been teaching for many years are eager to explore the data on how students learn in different settings.

This input from faculty complements what we have been hearing from students and alumni. Engaged education, intellectual cross-training, and understanding how what we learn in classrooms can be translated beyond the university remain high priorities as we plan Wesleyan’s investments in providing our community with a curriculum and pedagogy that is bold, rigorous and inspired by practical idealism.

Thinking the Future of Higher Ed

Last week was full of conference talks for me. I’m not really a fan of these sorts of meetings, but I was asked to speak on liberal education at Aspen and Cambridge and thought I’d take the opportunity to wave the flag. Both meetings turned out to be really interesting, full of ideas that might be relevant for Wesleyan in the future.

Aspen meetings
Aspen meetings
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Aspen outside the meetings

At Aspen, I was particularly impressed by talks I heard by Donald Berwick on health care and continuous improvement; by Eric Mazur on innovations in the flipped classroom; by Maya Jasanoff on globalization and educational quality; and by Robert Putnam on educational inequality. Don Berwick has run Medicare and was a major figure in the planning and implementation of policies that led to the Affordable Care Act. He gave a powerful talk on how to create a culture of continuous improvement in an organization. This is not done through heroic individuals but through an entire workforce acting as a team to offer better services while holding down costs. He knows it can be done because he has seen it work! I am still thinking about how the analogy might work with higher education.

Eric Mazur is a legend in innovative pedagogy. You can check out his flipped classroom ideas here. At Aspen he reminded the audience that even a great lecturer (he is one) can create a better learning environment through the use of readily available technologies that in the end support peer learning. After giving us a simple physics lesson, Eric had us on the edge of our seats as we debated with one another an answer to a basic question about the heating of hard solids. Really! And project-based learning can work, he suggested, in any discipline.

Maya told us a historical tale of globalization, focusing on shipping. Having herself taken a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Europe, she described the ways in which globalization in the beginning of the 20th century drove down the price of goods but also increased certain basic forms of inequality. Will the same thing happen today with the globalization of education? Will we lose the research and preservation dimensions of the academy, and will we accelerate trends of inequality through which only the elite have access to high-touch, high-quality learning experiences?

OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs- Harvard Conference on the Future of Education
OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs-Harvard Conference on the Future of Education

Inequality was the core of Robert Putnam’s very moving talk based on the research from his latest book, Our Kids. He described to this audience of higher ed leaders how his own hometown of Fort Clinton, OH has suffered from de-industrialization and worse. Not everyone has suffered, of course. One of the key determinants for one’s prospects for a decent life? Education. In today’s America, if you don’t have the opportunity to attend college, your chances for basic economic security, health care…even a fulfilling family life, are dramatically reduced. Putnam has strong data on this, but he brought the point home with powerful stories of how many children today, our kids, are being condemned to blighted lives while others are given the support they need to take care of themselves and contribute to their communities.

While on the road, whether I was talking with the Dean of the Humanities at Hong Kong University or an entrepreneur whose company teaches English online (both of whom were on my panel at Harvard), I am continually struck by the relevance of the experiments going on here at Wesleyan. Our faculty, staff and students are rethinking higher education while they are in the middle of it, making innovation a reality on campus. This is practical idealism at its best!

Building Better Teachers

Many of us have turned our thoughts and hopes toward the Wesleyan student injured this weekend at the Beta Theta Pi  fraternity. The university will be updating the campus community about her condition as we receive more information from her family.

 

The semester is now well underway, even if some students are still finalizing their schedules. I’ve been talking with colleagues about their classes, and I’m always so impressed by their excitement and engagement with the course material and with their students. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to have so many fine teachers, and over the last several years we have added resources that encourage professors to share instructional techniques, including the use of new technologies. Great teachers are always learning.

Across the country, politicians, pundits and educators have been debating how we can improve instruction in the K-12 system. I recently reviewed a fine book on the subject, Elizabeth Green’s How to Build a Better Teacher. This is cross-posted with the Washington Post:

 

 

America has some of the best schools on the planet and one of the worst systems of education in the developed world. We have produced educational philosophies that have inspired teachers and students on every continent, but we have failed badly in implementing strategies that would either cultivate talents or address deficiencies.

This is not for lack of trying. Over a long period of time, federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars creating fancy programs dedicated to reorganizing where and how kids learn. In recent years we have built a testing industry based on the theory that if you can evaluate something, you can improve it. After all that effort, we have the tests, but where are the viable strategies for improving teaching and learning?

In “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green examines the forces for and obstacles against change in our schools. But she doesn’t engage directly in the political debates that swirl around tenure, unions, cheating, over-testing and growing inequality. Instead, she identifies and dispels three deep sources of confusion: one myth and two inadequate arguments.

Green finds the “Myth of the Natural-Born Teacher” to be pervasive and pernicious. It attributes great teaching to personality traits that can’t be learned: “You either have it or you don’t.” This keeps us from developing a professional culture to improve teaching. Instead, we seek to hire people who have “it,” without defining what “it” is.

Two arguments that feed off this myth are labeled by Green accountability and autonomy. According to the first, we must measure a teacher’s results by testing his or her students (again and again). Data from the tests will be used to hold the teacher accountable (read: punishments and rewards) without a clue about how to improve performance. According to the autonomy argument, nobody can understand what goes on in a classroom better than teachers themselves. Instruction is so personal that we must respect the professional autonomy of teachers and let them do what feels right to them (whatever that is).

The myth and the arguments keep us from accomplishing what the philosopher John Dewey called for decades ago: develop “an analysis of what the gifted teacher does intuitively,” so we can create a culture in which effective teaching and deep learning take place.

Green describes with verve some of the key efforts to show that great teaching is a professional achievement rather than a natural ability. In the 1980s Lee Shulman recognized that teachers, like physicians, must learn how to combine their specific subject expertise with an ability to make that knowledge relevant to others. More recently, Magdalene Lampert has shown how sharing best classroom practices can promote teaching as a “complex craft” mastered over time. Green paints a picture of dedicated professionals striving to create a culture that can refine, share, improve upon and disseminate effective pedagogy. She points out that teachers need to know how to turn “a student’s slippery intuition into solid understanding” — and that this kind of knowledge can itself be taught.

Creating the infrastructure to develop this knowledge is a massive undertaking, given the scale of our heterogeneous systems. There are more than 3.7 million teachers in this country, and looming retirements mean that we can expect to hire around 3 million new teachers by 2020.

But the most interesting parts of “Building a Better Teacher” don’t have to do with numbers, systems or politics. Green is at her best when she describes how dedicated teachers work in the classroom. It isn’t nearly enough, she explains, for instructors to show their pupils how to get the right answers. Teachers have to divine why youngsters landed on the wrong answers and then steer them away from error so that in the future they can find their own way.

And that’s the key to great teaching at any level: cultivating in students the enhanced capacity to think for themselves in productive ways when they are no longer in the classroom or doing homework. This is so much more than following a rule or showing discipline (though both are often necessary). Green’s pages on teachers who help their students to think mathematically are particularly effective. But how to share teaching strategies that work?

Green compares the Japanese use of discussion sessions, jugyokenkyu, with the American reluctance to talk about teaching techniques at all. In Japan, regular observation and discussions turn the discovery of effective strategies in individual classrooms into a comprehension of craft that can be shared by a community of professionals.

A community of professionals is not the same thing as a union defending basic working conditions; nor is it a high-flying cadre of charismatic instructors whose students score well on exams. It’s the human core of effective instruction. All the testing in the world is just an “exoskeleton” and won’t provide this foundation.

Many obstacles inhibit the development of a culture for learning the craft of teaching. But Green emphasizes the ingredients for positive change that are currently in place. In addition to advances in teacher training, there are energetic entrepreneurs creating schools with ambitious, measurable goals: “The Common Core offered coherence, the research on teaching and teacher education offered a starting point for a curriculum, and the entrepreneurs added passion and a laboratory for experimentation.”

Now that we know how great a difference skilled teachers can make, we should leave behind the myth of the natural teacher, and our obsessions with accountability or autonomy. “The only logical conclusion,” Green writes, is “that American education ought to build a coherent infrastructure — clear goals, accurate tests, trained instructors — to teach teaching.”

Despite her lack of attention to the wider culture and context, Green’s account of passionate educators dedicated to their “complex craft” should be part of every new teacher’s education. It is vital for the United States to build better teachers to inspire the lifelong learning that not only our students but also their instructors so desperately need.

 

The Impact of Research

Yesterday the tenured members of the faculty convened to discuss the changing context for academic research. Our scholar teachers have been shaping the fields in which they work while responding to new methodologies, to blurred disciplinary boundaries, to expanded modes of dissemination, and to reduced expectations for funding in certain fields. There was talk about the rise in co-authored articles and the demise of the monograph in some academic areas.  For some, this altered landscape contains many opportunities for enhanced faculty-student collaborative research and for more integrative work. “Translational” research  work that connects basic inquiry to problems in society or public culture  is increasingly popular  in many fields across the curriculum. Scholars are using blogs, exhibitions, performances and community partnerships to make their work more widely known, and the feedback they receive in turn influences their future scholarship.

One of the great challenges facing academic institutions today is how to assess advanced scholarship and artistic work in this changing landscape. Our faculty have been thoughtful about facilitating work that makes a positive impact on a field through unconventional channels. At Wesleyan scientists routinely cross disciplinary borders to pursue questions, economists work on climate change, literature professors work on history and political scientists work on economics. Artistic production here often involves significant investment in research, and performances stimulate inquiry.

I was encouraged to listen to Wesleyan professors think together about how to deepen their research activity while also expanding its reach. We believe that this scholarship makes for better teachers and more opportunities for students to learn by becoming active practitioners themselves. Together we create new knowledge at Wesleyan, and we also find new ways to maximize the impact of that knowledge. Through all the changes in our cultural landscape, the scholar-teacher model continues to thrive.

 

 

Fall Plans, Hopes, Hard Work

This past weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The Board’s 32 members – plus representatives from students, faculty and staff – discussed two topics in particular: online education and the plans for the fundraising campaign. We spent the first hours of the retreat listening to reports from two of the top officials from the Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley collaboration: EdX.  They described how the three universities planned to disseminate knowledge through free, open courses and through this venture to better understand online learning and its potential – an understanding they expect to inform the evolution of education on their campuses. We also heard from a partner at McKinsey and Company, who spoke with us in broader terms about the promise and the challenge of online education. He placed online education in the context of the growing demand from around the world for higher education in the United States and also of the growing demand for skilled employees likely to be needed by companies in the coming decades. He had no doubt that online education will grow exponentially to meet those demands.

During the afternoon of our retreat, Professors Michael Weir, Lisa Dierker, Manolis Kaparakis and Eric Charry introduced us to courses that use technology to teach large numbers of students. The trustees had been given homework, freeing up their “class time” for a lot more than just listening to the sage on the stage. Of course, the great majority of classes at Wesleyan are very interactive, and our trustees were reminded (by the performance of our four professors) that no matter how great the use of technology, a great teacher makes all the difference in the world. The strength of our faculty has been and will continue to be key to the power of the Wes experience in the classroom and in research collaborations.

In the second day of the retreat, we discussed plans for our fundraising efforts over the next few years. We are focused on raising endowment funds while maintaining robust annual giving each year. We have already raised over 260 million dollars, and our highest priority in this campaign is financial aid. Recent changes to our budgeting for scholarship only put more emphasis on that priority. Financial aid: Now more than ever.

After the student and faculty representatives left the Board meeting, a group of Wes undergrads concerned about our financial aid policy interrupted the session to make the point that they, too, should be part of that conversation. This interruption could be seen, I suppose, as a sort of prelude to the open forum on financial aid that Wesleying had planned with me for the following day. Monday night we did, in fact, have that conversation, and the students had many good questions about how to mount a sustainable scholarship program that preserves access, enhances diversity, and contributes to the quality of the educational experience on campus. You can watch a recording of the webcast of the hour-long conversation here.

At Wesleyan we have myriad interests and different opinions about liberal arts education now and in the future, but I’m confident that we can all agree on the importance of raising money for scholarships. Financial aid: Now more than ever!

Re-Accreditation Thoughts

This week I met with staff at a convocation for the new semester. We shared the good news that the Old Squash Building has been beautifully reconstructed (on time and on budget!) as the new home for the Career Resource Center, the College of Letters and the Art History department. We also talked about the continued growth in our application pool and the flurry of generous giving that came at the end of the calendar year. The Physical Plant team, the Admissions Office and the University Relations Office have been awfully busy during this long winter “break.”

I shared with the staff some quick thoughts about the re-accreditation process now underway with the Northeast Association of Schools and Colleges. During our self-study, we are asked to assess and reflect on our progress on 11 “standards”. We are using this process to find places where we can improve the university’s operations, and in that spirit I mentioned a challenge for each of NEASC’s standards.

Mission and Purpose

In a joint community effort we created a Mission Statement about two years ago. This is it:

Wesleyan University is dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism. At Wesleyan, distinguished scholar-teachers work closely with students, taking advantage of fluidity among disciplines to explore the world with a variety of tools. The university seeks to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.

Planning and Evaluation

How do we plan with data? How do we maintain tradition without carrying dead weight?

There are many things we do at Wesleyan because we’ve “always done them this way.” We must use data in order to plan programs that will give maximum support to learning and research.

Organization and Governance

How do we involve faculty and staff in planning for the future of the organization when contemporary needs are so pressing?

We have seriously reduced annual spending and the size of the support staff. This makes day-to-day operations more challenging. In this context it is imperative to involve faculty and staff in planning the long-term future of the university.

Academic Program

How will the liberal arts remain relevant for the future? What is curricular coherence?

In 2007 we were challenged by NEASC to articulate our view of the coherence of the curriculum. We believe that students at Wes should own their own education, but to do so requires serious advising and mentoring. By giving students the tools to develop their own education, we strive to provide intellectual cross-training –liberal learning that will shape the future.

Faculty

How do we support a scholar-teacher model in a world increasingly concerned with immediate results?

We believe that students learn from the example of dedicated scholar-teachers. But much of scholarship is not immediately relevant to the classroom, and we know that deep research is not best judged by popularity. Our challenge is to maintain the subsidy for advanced research as a vehicle for first-rate undergraduate education.

Students

How do we maintain vibrant student life in the face of a culture of entitlement and excessive drug and alcohol use?

Wesleyan has long been known for its progressive, creative and productive student culture. Like most colleges and universities, we also have a student culture plagued by abuse of alcohol and drugs by people who feel that this is “their time” to do whatever they please. How can we balance the forces of creativity and our responsibility to maintain a safe, educational environment?

Library and Info Resources

How do we maintain vibrant up-to-date access to the best information across a wide variety of fields?

The Wesleyan Library is one of the jewels of the campus, and it remains a great study space and intellectual resource. It is also part of a network of resources that connect student and faculty to the materials they need for study. Increasingly, this means access to information rather than ownership of materials.

Financial Resources

How do we rebuild our endowment base while competing right now?

For the last few years we have been focused on building our endowment, so that the financial strength of the university will be at least as great 25 years from now as it is today. We must balance that long-term building with the needs of the students, faculty, and staff today.

Public Disclosure

Can we maintain a culture of transparency in a highly political environment?

Since the financial crisis, we have been making all our financial and planning materials as public as possible. We must continue to do so, even in a context of competition and critique.

Physical Resources

We have a beautiful campus that thousands consider home. It is aging. How do we maintain it and modernize it?

Many say that Wesleyan’s campus has never looked more beautiful, and the new buildings work well side-by-side with our historic structures. We must continue to maintain our history even as we modernize our physical plant to become more energy efficient and networked to the wider world.

Integrity

How can we be honest about our challenges and forthright in our commitments?

I am very proud of the achievements of our university — from staff and faculty members who go far beyond the call of duty to students who achieve focused excellence while broadening their educational experience. I am also proud of the ways that our community prods us to do even more, pointing out where we fall short and encouraging us to live up to our mission to: think critically and creatively and… value independence of mind and generosity of spirit

In a few weeks, new drafts of our accreditation self-study will be posted online. I hope many of you will comment on our work thus far. Together, we will make Wesleyan a university that can be an ever deeper resource for its students, alumni, faculty and staff — a university that can be an admirable example of the best in American progressive liberal arts education.

Virtuous Circle of Teaching and Research

Over the last thirty to forty years, higher education in America has viewed contributions to research as an essential part of its mission. Professors are expected to participate in shaping their scholarly fields, and students are expected to learn not just the wisdom of the past, but how to produce knowledge in the present. At large universities, though, the research function often seems to dwarf the dedication to undergraduate education. At several of the Ivies and other schools that compete for academic prestige, senior faculty often have little to do with teaching those preparing bachelor degrees, and graduate students or other part-time instructors wind up taking on the bulk of college teaching. The tenured professors work mostly with graduate students, preparing them for careers that, too, are expected to center on research.

In recent years the folly of this system has become increasingly evident: there are few tenure-track jobs for the graduate students being trained to work in the most specialized domains, and undergraduates are often left to wonder how courses taught by these narrowly trained specialists are supposed to connect to their lives after college. As smaller institutions emulated the research universities, the publish-or-perish mentality became a core part of faculty culture, with specialized journals publishing for small groups of colleagues offering the most professional prestige.

There has recently been plenty of strong criticism of the cultivation of esoteric research in higher education. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued that universities are wasting resources and failing students, in part because of the premium put on faculty research rather than teaching. Hacker and Dreifus have been teaching in New York for decades, and they have also been prolific authors. But in their recent book,  Higher Education? they argue that schools have been distracted from their core educational mission by adding on the obligation to contribute to scholarly fields.

Mark C. Taylor, Wesleyan graduate, long time professor at Williams and now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has recently published what he calls a bold plan to respond to the contemporary crisis on campus. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he diagnoses “the identification of specialization with expertise.” Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor’s main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by “webs, not walls.” Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn’t plug into these new forms of knowledge creation. (I’ve taken my comments here from my review of the book in the LA Times.)

How are these critiques relevant to Wesleyan? To be sure, our university prizes research because we believe that it informs and enlivens pedagogy. I often talk about the “virtuous circle” of teaching and research, and many of my Wesleyan colleagues have been deeply affected in their scholarly work by what they learn from students in the classroom. Similarly, our students know that we continue to learn with them through the work we do in our fields…we are not just imparting information to them that somebody else imparted to us.

Some of Wesleyan’s best teachers are also our most serious and original researchers, and all of us remain dedicated to undergraduate education even as we produce scholarship for specialized audiences. So, even though I think Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor are right to worry about severe overspecialization (with its associated bureaucracy) in certain fields, I think they might say more about the positive feedback loop that can connect the classroom and the archive, the science lab and the lecture hall. And we should note that these contemporary critics of education are themselves also researchers, and this hasn’t seemed to undermine their professed love of teaching.

I just attended part of the Molecular Biophysics and Biological Chemistry retreat, and I saw great evidence of how well the scholar teacher model is working here at Wes. This year’s gathering honored David Beveridge, Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics. David’s pioneering work in computational biology and biophysics has had a powerful influence in the classroom and the research lab, and I saw several fine examples of Wes student research in the poster session. Sure there is specialization, but there is also an understanding of what is at stake in the experiments and an ability to describe the work for the non-expert. Showing a wonderful talent for translating their efforts to this layman, students explained to me their work on RNA, on modeling the structure of particular carbon based molecules, and on the translation of proteins. My head is still spinning!

There are plenty of things in American higher education that can be improved, but we must be careful to preserve our ability to educate students broadly and deeply by engaging faculty in projects that are both scholarly and pedagogical. Specialization without the capacity for translation (without “intellectual cross-training,” as Wes trustee Geoff Duyk calls it) does undermine effective teaching at many schools, but Wesleyan professors who remain active scholars, scientists and artists exemplify a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.

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The Semester Begins! Celebrations and Classes

This week is the 100th anniversary of the  birth of one of America’s great film directors, Elia Kazan, and Wesleyan will mark the occasion with a series of films. We begin on Saturday, September 12th at 8:00 pm with Boomerang! (1947). Kazan, whose work with theater was also of decisive importance, presented his papers to Wesleyan in 1968, and for some time he had an office in Olin Library. For decades scholars have been using the papers in their research, one of the many extraordinary collections in the Wesleyan Cinema Archive. You can hear more about Kazan and the Archive on Saturday when Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, introduces Boomerang! at 8 pm. For more information on the Kazan festival, see http://www.wesleyan.edu/filmstudies/specialevents.html.

In conjunction with the Kazan celebrations Mark Longenecker is teaching a film studies class based in the archival holdings. This is one of the dozens of classes added to the curriculum this year, most of them with enrollments under 20. I remember as a student feeling frustrated when I didn’t get the class I most wanted, but then I wound up in another course and it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me that semester. Perusing the course catalogue, I’ve seen offerings that combine science and service learning, politics and history, literature and music. Barry Chernoff, who is leading our efforts for planning the College of the Environment, is teaching “Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems.” This a science class that requires students to devote a few Saturday mornings to fieldwork to complement lectures and labs. Fieldwork in a boat sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday.

Leah Wright, who has just joined the history department, is teaching a class on Black Conservatism. The class examines how black conservatism shifted, transformed, and evolved over the course of American social and political development. Lynn Westling teaches an introductory Physics course for non-majors called “Physics for Presidents.” It examines “mathematical and physical models that explain quantitatively how our world works.” The course discusses issues in the political sphere that depend on an understanding of physics, from nuclear weapons to alternative energy.

I’m teaching a new class this term: Topics in the Philosophy of History. It’s a small seminar to complement my large film class in the spring. We’ll be working on issues connecting memory and history, psychoanalysis and trauma, and photography and representation.

I had lunch today with Howard Needler, who has been teaching in the College of Letters since the late 1960s. We talked about Wesleyan old and new, sometimes emphasizing the great changes and at other moments marveling at the continuities. The College of Letters (like CSS and CHUM which all celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year) has always attracted talented, creative students interested in ideas and how they take shape over time. Professor Needler is teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy this year: a full year on this landmark text. The class is fully subscribed. Lucky students, I thought!

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